When he wants to have a child and she doesn’t, who gets their way? What about when she wants to and he doesn’t? Perhaps it isn’t surprising that studies of fertility outcomes among couples with conflicting childbearing intentions tend to focus on gender and power; we’re used to thinking of the partner who got their way as winning. Even if we step back from particular couple circumstances and ask which partner gets their way more often, it still seems natural to focus on gender: do men’s intentions prevail more often than women’s intentions? Scholars have often assumed that in societies with less gender equity, the man will get his way more often and that in societies with more gender equity, the outcomes will be less predictable.
Why then did a recent study from Italy, a country considered to be tradition-bound and that has low levels of gender equity, find that men and women hold equal sway in reproductive decisions? I’ll give you a hint: stop thinking about gender.
As natural as it is to think about the individual man or woman “getting their way” when it comes to conflicts about whether to have a(nother) child, the society as a whole actually has a lot of influence on that seemingly intimate decision. Here’s what I mean: the number of children that most people in the society have influences how reproductive conflict between individuals is resolved. Whether continuing to have children is normative or not matters much more than the gender of the partner who wants to continue.
The authors of the Italian study, Maria Rita Testa, Laura Cavalli, and Allesandro Rosina, seemed a little surprised that gender didn’t matter much in reproductive decision-making in a country that provides little state support for families and where women are primarily responsible for childrearing. They found some compromise among couples who disagree about whether to have a first or second child, but if the disagreement was about whether to have a third, couples generally stopped at two. The researchers interpreted the unimportance of gender as follows: “because childbearing has long-term implications for both partners, neither is willing to have a child without the consent of the other.”
A given society's fertility rate influences how reproductive conflict between partners is resolved.
That’s what my mom thinks, too. I was telling her about another mom in my daughter’s preschool who is pregnant with her fifth child and having terrible morning sickness for the first time. She cooperated fully in conceiving a child that only her husband actively wanted, and she wakes up every morning quite sick with the decision. As my mom observed, “it seems like that kind of thing should be mutual.”
But no matter how many people agree with Testa et al. and with my mom, it really doesn’t work that way. Fertility norms not only matter more than gender norms, they also matter more than mutuality. Recent research from Nepal, where fertility has recently fallen quickly to 2.6 children per woman, indicated that women there get their way when they want to have a third, even if their husband is opposed. Neither men nor women in Italy, where the average woman bears 1.4 children, can have a third if their partner is opposed. And in Ghana, where the average is 4.2 children per woman, neither men nor women think they can stop at two unless their partner is agreed.
Think about what it means to want to have a third child in Nepal, where more than half of women will have at least three—plus just a decade ago, the vast majority did: that’s a pretty normal desire and it receives much support, even from husbands who would rather not take it on. In contrast, think about what it means in Italy to want to have three kids, where less than half of women will have even two: the partner who wants to stop has already exceeded societal expectations for childbearing. Then in Ghana, where it is stopping at two that is quite unusual, neither men nor women typically manage to stop there without their partner’s concurrence. It seems that even if we fancy ourselves independent decision-makers or even couples who make mutual decisions, people the world over have an easier time achieving normative fertility goals.
Testa and her coauthors did not overlook the importance of fertility norms: they cite much other work from Europe and the U.S. endorsing the idea that when continuing to bear children is “discretionary” (read as: would result in three children), then either partner has veto power. But they pit a number of competing hypotheses against that, including that the importance of gender depends on factors like relative earning power. None of their hypotheses about gender or relative power panned out.
It isn’t that couples’ preferences don’t matter in the face of social pressure; it is that conflict resolution tends to favor the less radical partner.
How, then, does fertility ever decline? How does Ghana go from more than four children per woman to establishing a norm of two if social norms influence individual couples so much? First, most couples agree on how many children they want to have. A professional Kenyan woman I know stopped at three with her husband’s full support, even though that was an unusual decision. It isn’t that couples’ preferences don’t matter in the face of social pressure; it is that conflict resolution tends to favor the less radical partner. Norms can be changed by enough couples agreeing to have fewer, and that usually happens as economies develop. Second, fertility decline is self-reinforcing: if a minority of couples agree to innovate, they can change the environment enough that the “radical” partner in a discordant couple will become less radical—stopping at two will come to receive support because there are a bunch of successful people who have done it.
The bottom line is that the factors that relate to gender and power—women’s education, independent earning potential, relative assets, and the like—do not matter much for couples trying to resolve reproductive conflict. But the same shifts in women’s lives that don’t make them into independent fertility decision-makers still do change the whole environment in support of having fewer children. That’s good news for those concerned with population growth, but it does not signify a triumph of reproductive autonomy, nor does it mean that either partner has veto power before the couple’s childbearing has reached normative levels. In other words, women’s empowerment matters for overall fertility—just not for conflict resolution within couples.